Thursday, October 26, 2017

92 (2017-2018): Review: THE LAST MATCH (seen October 25, 2017)

“Different Strokes”

Anna Ziegler’s The Last Match, an enjoyable if knotty new play at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, is the third I’ve seen in the past two years built around the game of tennis. Both, Andy Bragen’s Don’t You Say a Fxxking Word and Neil LaBute’s one-act “Break Point,” underline the competition between two aggressive male players and the interplay between the game and their private lives. Ditto Ziegler's play.
The men in Bragen’s piece are amateurs who play at courts near the FDR drive; the only other characters are their wives. LaBute’s short play features just two characters, a world champion player and his talented but less accomplished rival. Both works include extended sequences of mimed, ball-less tennis playing, Bragen’s with actual rackets, LaBute’s without. Rackets appear in The Last Match but, as in LaBute’s play, the exceptional tennis sequences omit them.

These sequences, brilliantly staged by director Gaye Taylor Upchurch, are among the chief reasons for visiting The Last Match, an occasionally humorous, heartfelt attempt to explore not only the competitive dynamic between two top players but the personal, particularly the romantic and marital, matters that collide with their professional ambitions. 
The athletes—blonde, clean-cut American Tim Porter (Wilson Bethel), 34, dressed in whites, and the mid-20s, dark-haired, bearded, Russian Sergei Sergeyev (Alex Mickiewicz)—are competing in the semifinals at the US Open. Their matches are enacted on Tim Macabee’s lovely set, an abstraction showing a gorgeous sky at the rear, nearly 60 stadium-style lights in graduated sizes arching over the stage, scoreboard areas on the audience walls at the sides, and, downstage, a blue floor on which the (net-less) games take place. Bradley King’s excellent lighting and Montana Blanco’s costumes do much to enhance the visuals. 
The play (which premiered at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre) follows a nonlinear structure that allows the characters, in addition to scenes of straightforward dialogue, to speak directly to the audience, telling their stories, while also being able to address another character within these narratives. These thoughts are presumably what’s going on the athletes’ minds during the game, a forced conceit you’d do better to quickly ignore. 
Time is also fluid, with lots of flashbacks during which we get to learn about the men and the history of their previous interactions, including the awe in which Tim—one of the greatest players in history but rumored to be retiring because of a bad back—is held by Sergei. There's also much to discover about their relationships with the principal women in their lives.

For Tim, it’s his wife, Mallory (Zoë Winters), once ranked among the world’s top 20 women players, who gave up her career after getting married, although she now serves as a coach. Much time is taken up with her and Tim’s desire for a child and the pregnancy problems she experiences as a result. For Sergei, it’s Galina (Natalia Payne), a Russian model and would-be actress with a body to die for and a caustic wit that keeps the volatile Sergei in his place. Both women play significant roles in bolstering their men's shaky psyches.
Aside from the gradual revelation of who these people are and what drives them, there’s very little plot, other than who’s winning or losing at any point. The play’s ultimate goal is to express how top-level athletes like these cope with the stresses of aging, injury, pain, success, self-confidence, and the like, while also managing off-court lives that, like everyone’s, confront sensitive issues, like mortality. To put it crudely: even superstars go to the bathroom.

There’s nothing especially unusual or eye-opening about any of these things, which have been treated in many plays and movies, but Ziegler at least gives her actors theatrically vivid things to say and do, and the actors saying and doing them are appealingly expressive. The 95 intermissionless minutes fly by entertainingly enough even if, like me, you have little knowledge of how tennis is scored. Its indefinite finale, though, is not a game-ender to be wished. 
Bethel and Mickiewicz are superbly convincing as fine-tuned, high-strung athletes, their perfectly choreographed, balletically graceful serves and returns timed to realistic thwacks from sound designer Bray Poor. Bethel brings just the right combination of cockiness and sensitivity to Tim to prevent us from disliking him, while Zoë Winters, who gets to do some impressive exercise business, makes Mallory a smart, caring, and sassy complement to Bethel’s Tom.

Mickiewicz, using a sometimes slipping Russian accent, plays Sergei with a stereotypical brashness that can be overbearing but is thankfully offset by Natalia Payne’s sharp-tongued, more authentically accented Galina, who knows just how to keep him in his place. I want to see all these actors again but it’s Payne’s next role I’m really looking forward to.


Laura Pels Theatre
111 W. 46th St., NYC
Through December 23